What explains the success of postgraduate computer science programs?

Online learning is not a new idea. It’s rooted in correspondence courses. In the late 1800s, postal mail services powered learning and communication platforms. Today, everything is digital, with teacher-student interaction available in real time and at your own pace.

The ongoing pandemic has made people reconsider their career prospects. As a result, many people have decided to expand or refresh their studies. In response, colleges enhanced existing online learning options and introduced new programs.

“It was a risky business”

Atlanta-based Georgia Tech says it was the first accredited university to offer an online Master of Science in Computer Science, or OMSCS for short. The diploma is available in a massive online format. Georgia Tech partnered with Udacity and AT&T to launch its OMSCS program in 2014.

For the Spring 2022 semester, 12,016 students enrolled in the program. For the fall 2021 semester, 837 people graduated. Nearly 6,500 students have graduated to date.

David Joyner, Ph.D., is the executive director of online education and OMSCS at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing. Joyner highlighted four key factors that contributed to the success of the OMSCS program.

“Looking back, the success of OMSCS seems like a foregone conclusion, but at the time it was a risky business, Joyner said. “The low tuition could have hurt enrollment in our on-campus program, and the high admission rate could diminish the perceived quality of the degree.”

But the opposite happened. In less than a decade, the reputation and visibility of the OMSCS program has resulted in more applications for the program on campus. Joyner believes the “incredible quality” of online students has enhanced the university‘s reputation.

Joyner credited the willingness of the program’s founders and visionaries — as well as Georgia Tech’s administrative leaders — to push forward despite the risks of starting something new.

Additionally, “the faculty has embraced the idea of ​​creating the program online and making sure it meets the standards we expect on campus,” Joyner said. “Courses are taught by the same professors who teach in person and who do the research that then becomes material for their lessons, and which lends an authenticity that lends its magic to the program.”

Once the program enrolled more than 2,000 students, Joyner and his colleagues realized they could not sustain the program’s growth with only teaching assistants on campus.

“But online students have rallied in droves to support the program,” Joyner said.

Today, the program employs more than 400 teaching assistants, nearly half of whom are alumni. Many are now professionals working in the field. As a result, their first-hand professional experience, perspectives and knowledge enhance the courses they take, according to Joyner.

Finally, said Joyner, technology “has recently reached a point where rich, authentic, active learning experiences and vibrant social learning communities can be created and scaled around the world with relative ease. “.

The scarcity of jobs arouses the interest of students

Georgia Tech claims to be the first. But today, dozens of colleges offer postgraduate computer science programs online only. These include the University of Texas at Austin, which launched its online Masters of Computer Science (MCSO) degree in 2019.

Eric Busch, Ph.D., is the director of online computer science and data science programs at UT Austin. He said the technology job market is a factor that makes this type of master’s degree in computer science worthwhile for many students.

“The effects of the pandemic notwithstanding, we believe that MCSO’s early success is rooted in the stark disparities in the education and labor markets in computing fields – which the program is in part designed to address,” Busch said.

The gap between the number of computer science graduates and the number of open computer science jobs is well documented. This scarcity creates a massive unmet demand for skilled CS workers in a wide variety of fields and job functions.

– Eric Busch of UT Austin

The Society for Human Resource Management predicted that employers would struggle to find and retain IT professionals in 2022. About three months into the year, SHRM’s prediction appears to be coming true.

“The gap between the number of computer science graduates and the number of open computer science jobs is well documented,” Busch continued. “This scarcity is creating a massive unmet demand for skilled CS workers in a wide variety of fields and job functions. Although companies in the tech sector have increased wages to compensate, the supply of skilled labor in these domains remains relatively inelastic.”

Busch said inelasticity is rooted in the scarcity of education. Even large on-campus computer science programs like the one at UT Austin can only accommodate a limited number of in-person students each year.

“Capacity on campus remains limited in terms of financial aid capacity and physical space,” Busch said.

For the Spring 2022 semester, UT Austin had 860 students enrolled in the MCSO program. UT Austin professors teach the classes, which feature lessons designed for online learning.

“Programs like MCSO represent an important intervention in this shortage dynamic,” Busch added. “Because our online, asynchronous program format can handle much higher student volumes, we are able to admit all qualified and able applicants to earn a master’s degree.”

Content changes part of program success

We have operated for the past two years without an online program manager or MOOC partner, and I think we have been better off because it allows us to design each element of the program to suit our own needs.

—David Joyner of Georgia Tech

Joyner says academic content changes also contribute to the success of the OMSCS program.

When the program began, OMSCS partnered with a huge open online course provider who produced and hosted the school’s course content.

“Now we handle the production ourselves and host the content on our own platforms,” ​​Joyner said. “We’ve operated for the past two years without an online program manager or MOOC partner, and I think we’ve benefited the most because it allows us to design each element of the program to suit our own needs.”

“Our early classes were relatively lecture-heavy, and while they used many active learning strategies, the emphasis was on pre-recorded video content,” Joyner said. But now, he said, online computer science master’s courses are instead built around six focal points:

  • Courses with minimal course content built around open, student-led projects
  • Lab challenges and simulation-based assessment
  • Synchronous workshops with teachers and teaching assistants
  • Seminars focused on student presentations or shared reading interests
  • Courses based on partnerships with non-profit organizations or real-world healthcare professionals
  • Independent student research in partnership with faculty

What are the prospects beyond this year?

In application cycles since the start of the pandemic, applications to Georgia Tech’s OMSCS have increased by 14%.

Joyner suspects the surge in applicants for this online computer science graduate program is temporary. He thinks students are drawn to affordable online education at a time when “there is so much uncertainty around personal finances, the global economy and public health”.

Joyner also pointed to a noticeable demographic shift at Georgia Tech. The average age of incoming students at OMSCS has dropped from 37 to 30 years old.

This likely indicates “we are attracting more early-career students and fewer mid-career professionals who have been waiting 15+ years for an opportunity to study computer science in a more formal program.”

Graphical reading of text

Tori Rubloff/ZDNet

“That said,” he continued, “we were wrong before: we thought we stabilized in the first three years of the program, only to experience explosive growth after that.”

Busch at UT Austin also has a positive view of postgraduate computer science education.

“We anticipate continued enrollment growth in both the MCSO program and online higher education in general,” he said. “MCSO continues to add new courses and hopes to remain among the market leaders in online computer science education based on its use of tenured faculty to teach online courses and its emphasis on rigor and creating a student community.

This article has been reviewed by Monali Mirel Chuatico

Monali Mirel Chuatico, a woman with long black hair, smiles in a headshot.

In 2019, Monali Mirel Chuatico earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science, which gave her the foundation she needed to excel in roles such as data engineer, front-end developer, UX designer, and computer science instructor.

Monali is currently a Data Engineer at Mission Lane. As Captain of Data Analytics at a non-profit organization called COOP Careers, Monali helps new graduates and young professionals overcome underemployment by teaching them data analytics tools and mentoring them. in their career development.

Monali is passionate about implementing creative solutions, building community, advocating for mental health, empowering women and educating young people. Monali’s goal is to gain more experience in her field, broaden her skills and do meaningful work that will have a positive impact on the world.

Monali Mirel Chuatico is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Independent Assessment Network.

Last revised March 21, 2022.

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